Like many current science fiction authors, Jules Verne would’ve been surprised to learn he was one. His ambitions were somewhat different. As he told Alexander Dumas, pere:
"Just as you are the great chronicler of history, I shall be the chronicler of geography."
And he proceeded to do just that. There are four recurring characters in a Jules Verne novel: air, fire, earth and water. The womb’s domain, so to speak. Verne liked to place his human characters in enclosed, self-contained, unique spaces of one kind or the other– heavier-than-air flying machines, isolated islands, floating cities, villages on tree-tops, the earth’s core, cannon-balls to the moon, steel submarines 20,000 leagues under the sea– and send them out for a spin. For the most part, his people are two-dimensional cross-hairs; their main role is keep track of places in the reader’s mind.
But there is one marvelous exception. In 1912, some forty odd years after the publication of 20,000 leagues Under The Sea, Sir Earnest Shackleton wrote in The Future of Exploration:
"…all the work of our modern oceanographers– of Sir John Murray of Challenger fame, Dr. Hjort of the Michael Sars, Prince Albert of Monaco, and of the various marine biological stations– has won less of public attention and interest than did a single one of Jules Verne’s heroes, Captain Nemo of the Nautilus. Thus does a good tale overshadow the romance of real life…."
How did Captain Nemo ever become something more than one of Verne’s story pegs? F. P. Walter provides one answer:
"…much of the novel’s brooding power comes from Captain Nemo. Inventor, musician, Renaissance genius, he’s a trail-blazing creation, the prototype not only for countless renegade scientists in popular fiction, but even for such varied figures as Sherlock Holmes or Wolf Larsen. However, Verne gives his hero’s brilliance and benevolence a dark underside–the man’s obsessive hate for his old enemy. This compulsion leads Nemo into ugly contradictions: he’s a fighter for freedom, yet all who board his ship are imprisoned there for good; he works to save lives, both human and animal, yet he himself creates a holocaust; he detests imperialism, yet he lays personal claim to the South Pole….Hate swallows him whole."
It is a plausible explanation. As Captain Nemo readies to destroy an enemy ship– of unspecified nationality– he rages at the tale’s protesting narrator in an Ahab-type outburst:
"I’m the law, I’m the tribunal! I’m the oppressed, and there are my oppressors! Thanks to them, I’ve witnessed the destruction of everything I loved, cherished, and venerated–homeland, wife, children, father, and mother! There lies everything I hate! Not another word out of you!"
But who destroyed everything Nemo loved? Which homeland? 20,000 leagues was deliberately silent on these issues. Verne had wanted Nemo to be a Polish rebel who’d participated in the January Uprising and whose family had been murdered by Tsarist Russia for that reason. But Russia happened to be a pal of France at the moment, and Verne’s editor, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, "persuaded" him to omit crucial details.